This is an essay for the Penguin Classics Essay Contest. It's based on the book Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko, which is about a Native American man named Tayo. Tayo went to fight in World War 2 with his brother Rocky. Rocky is technically his cousin, but Tayo's mother died when he was young, and left him with Rocky's mother, whom Tayo calls Auntie. Tayo also had an uncle named Josiah. Josiah dreamed of making a herd of cattle that would be resistant to drought, and Rocky dreamed of going to college on a football scholarship and being successful in the white world. However, Rocky volunteered as a soldier with Tayo and died in the Pacific. Josiah died at home, while they were off fighting, after his herd of cattle got lost. Tayo comes home and struggles to deal with the aftermath. Old Betonie is a medicine man Tayo goes to see in hopes of getting healed.The question I responded to was this:
Compare Tayo’s physical and psychological condition when he came home from the war to his condition at the end of the novel. Which experience or personal interaction most helped him to move toward healing?
Adapting to Change
By Erin Mullens
During World War II, thousands of Native Americans served in the US military. For many of them, this was the first time they had left their reservation. They were introduced to the cities, customs, and warfare of white men, and the experience changed them. One of those affected was Tayo, the protagonist of Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko. Both Tayo’s brother, Rocky, and his uncle, Josiah die during the war. They each had a particularly strong presence in his life, and Tayo has a hard time adjusting to their absence. Tayo struggles to adjust to the changes in his life, just as the wider Pueblo community struggles to adjust to the changes Europeans have imposed. But by the end of the novel the medicine man Old Betonie has helped Tayo find balance in his new life.
Tayo's mind is troubled by memories of before the war. Tayo “could get no rest as long as the memories were tangled with the present” (6). Everything reminds him of Rocky and Josiah; while their bodies are dead, they are still alive in his mind. When he returns to America, one of the first things he sees is “the face of the little boy, looking back at him, smiling… it was Rocky’s smiling face from a long time before when they were little kids together” (16). The reason he is still so preoccupied with them is because he thinks their deaths were a mistake. Josiah and Rocky both had hopes and plans for the future, but their deaths abruptly ended those expectations. Tayo, who had no plans for the future, is still alive. He thinks “it was him, Tayo, who had died, but somehow there had been a mistake with the corpses, and somehow his was still unburied” (25). This new, radically different life is hard for him to comprehend.
While Tayo is struggling to adjust to the changes in his personal life, the Pueblo community struggles with their place in the white world. In order that he may succeed in the white man’s world, Auntie pushes Rocky to study and play football. However, she dislikes Tayo because she believes his white blood to be shameful. She wants to be a model citizen, but she is confused as to what makes a person a model citizen. Is it having white blood? Or is it being successful in a white man’s world? Part of the Pueblo struggle is rooted in the land. It’s still the same land, with the same hills and valleys and plants that the Pueblo people lived on for hundreds of years. But now white men have come, erecting barbed wire fences, mining for uranium, and using it to test nuclear bombs. They struggle to feel connected to the land when it is in the control of white men. To them, “the fifth world had become entangled with European names… all of creation suddenly had two names: an Indian name and a white name” (62). Just like the deaths of Rocky and Josiah, this was not expected. Now, the Pueblo people are struggling to live in a world of unforeseen and unwanted changes.
Old Betonie helps Tayo adjust to the changes in his life and in the wider world. With Old Betonie, Tayo reveals his feelings of guilt in the deaths of Josiah and Rocky, that they “loved me, and I didn’t do anything” to save them (114). By acknowledging his presumed guilt, he is also acknowledging the fact that they died. Old Betonie helps Tayo realize it was not his fault, that “the witchery ranging as wide as this world” killed Rocky and Josiah (114). Rocky and Josiah were killed by a larger force over which Tayo had no control. Part of that larger force is the presence of the white men, the people who “took almost everything” (117). Old Betonie, however, is not bothered by the presence of the white men. He knows, for all they have taken away, they have not taken away the most important thing. The white people “only fool themselves” when they believe the land is their own, because “it is the people who belong to the mountain” (118). Nothing can sever Tayo’s personal connection to the land.
Throughout the novel, there is an incredible sense of loss. Everyone has lost what they previously thought they could not live without. Tayo has lost Josiah and Rocky, and the Pueblo people have lost control of their land. They don’t know how to continue after such changes. But they come to realize they did not lose everything. Tayo still has his connection to the land, he still has his life, even if he lost Josiah and Rocky, and his ancestors lost the rights to their land. As Old Betonie says, “Don’t be so quick to call something good or bad. There are balances and harmonies always shifting, always necessary to maintain” (120).